R. C. K. (Robert Charles Kirkwood) Ensor.

Modern socialism, as set forth by socialists in their speeches, writings, and programmes; online

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Online LibraryR. C. K. (Robert Charles Kirkwood) EnsorModern socialism, as set forth by socialists in their speeches, writings, and programmes; → online text (page 12 of 35)
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themselves in wealth and magnitude of business, as well as in
personal character, they proved unable to present a solid front
to the trade-unions. The result is that, in the course of the last
half century, some of the principal and most successful branches


of English industry — notably cotton manufacture, coal-mining,
ship-building, engineering, and the building trades — have
come to be regulated by codes of common rules, enforced
partly by law and partly by collective agreement. The rate
of wages, like the hours of work and the fundamental condi-
tions of safety and sanitation, are therefore no longer at the
mercy of individual capitalists. There exists in each trade a
sort of minimum standard, fixed practically by general agree-
ment among the whole body of employers on the one hand and
the whole body of workmen on the other, below which it is
found impossible for any employer to descend. He may break
away, but he discovers presently that it no more pays him to
outrage the public opinion of his trade than to infringe the
factory law. The general opinion of the community acts, in all
well-organized trades, as a real though curiously intangible
check upon the capitalist. Public sympathy is always on the
side of a stable and highly organized trade-union defending
itself against any encroachment on the common rules or reduc-
tion in rates. Great corporations like the London and North-
western Railway find themselves pulled up sharp by the
peremptory interference of the Board of Trade when they are
guilty of any unconscious tyranny over their employees. Even
in the late engineers' strike, where the men lost sympathy be-
cause they were believed to be resisting machinery, and the
employers won all along the line, the final agreement formally
recognized the right of collective bargaining and the need for
common rules, while the result has been the establishment of
a new tribunal of the trade to maintain these rules — a joint
tribunal, in which, for the moment, the associated employers
doubtless have a larger influence than the associated workmen,
but one to which every individual employer, no less than every
individual workman, finds himself practically subject. This
collective rule of the whole trade over every individual em-
ployer in it, as well as over every individual workman, is
typical of most of the industries in England in which there are
great employers or strong capitalist corporations. Moreover,

S. AND H. WF.BR loi

the law, where it purports to control, really does control, even
the greatest corporation. Hence neither our philanthropists
nor our workmen fear the Trust. England's industrial peril
lies in quite another direction.

The worst conditions of employment in the United Kingdom
occur in those industries carried on by small employers, or
desolated by home work, which have either escaped as yet
from the ever-widening scope of the factory laws, or in which
such laws are not yet effectively enforced. Here philanthropic
sentiment has hitherto been evoked by the spectacle of the
small master struggling to rise in the world, and unable to
afford to his sweated employees either wholesome workshops,
decent sanitation, or a living wage. These unfortunate
workers, incapable of effective organization, have hitherto
failed to obtain the same help from public opinion or the same
measure of protective legislation that Parliament concedes to
the politically active cotton-operatives or coal-miners, who need
it far less. Unfortunately, too, the efforts to secure effective
factory laws for these workers are at present balked by the
doctrinaire resistance of many of the leaders of the movement
for ** women's rights." Thus, the sweated trades, in spite of
their disastrous effects on the community as a whole, are given
at present a positive advantage in the competition for the
world-market. The absence of any collective regulation enables
the employers so to use their superiority in bargaining for the
hire of their labour as to reduce its condition even below sub-
sistence level. These trades are, in fact, parasites on the rest
of the community, drawing from the more prosperous sections,
in one form or another, a continual " bounty " with which to
eke out their starvation wages. Fortunately, the great staple
industries of the kingdom, in which relatively good conditions
prevail, gain so much in efficiency by their very regulation
that they go on, notwithstanding this virtual bounty to the
sweated trades, increasing in extent and prosperity year after
year. What loses ground in England is any industry which
escapes the beneficial effect of collective regulation, but which


for some reason fails to get the bounty implied in industrial
parasitism. The most conspicuous example is English agri-
culture, which is constantly falling more and more behind not
only the great regulated trades such as cotton and coal, but
also behind the miserably inefficient sweated trades, fed by
parasitic bounty. Thus, what is most urgendy needed in the
United Kingdom, and what is most likely to spring from our
growing consciousness of the weakness of the hired man, is
not any interference with the great employers or their capital-
ist combinations, — which are at present the least uncontrolled
of our industrial forces, — but an extension of the strong arm
of the law on behalf of the oppressed workers in the sweated

Models for such action are afforded both by New Zealand
and by Victoria. The time is not far distant when we shall
see in London, as already in Melbourne, wage-boards for all
the sweated trades, formed partly of employers and partly of
wage-earners, and empowered to fix minimum rates of piece-
work wages, below which it will be illegal for any employer to
hire a hand. We shall, in fact, begin at the bottom of the
industrial army, which suffers, not from great capitalists, but
from small masters, — not from the newest methods of industrial
organization, but from the belated survival of the old-fashioned
ones. These wage-boards, beginning, as in Victoria, in the
sweated trades, will, also as in Victoria, not rest there. New
Zealand points the way. More and more nearly do we
approach the stage at which the conditions of employment —
wages as well as hours, sanitation as well as protection from
accident, — if not fixed by authoritative decision of joint com-
mittees representing all the workmen and all the employers,
are settled by an arbitrator's decree to which both parties find
themselves compelled to submit. This will long be veiled in
the United Kingdom, where reforms usually arrive in substance
before they are called by their names. Yet English public
opinion is already much impressed by the fact that in Victoria
and in New Zealand the standard minimum conditions of

S. AND B. WEBB 103

employment — rates of wages as well as hours and sanitation —
which the community thinks fit to require from time to time
in each particular trade, are promulgated as law, and enforced
by the criminal courts. The nineteenth century in the United
Kingdom has seen the extension of the factory law to sanitation
and decency, hours of labour, and protection against accident,
in a select set of trades. The result of our growing conscious-
ness of the weakness of the wage- earner in his bargaining with
the great capitalist employer is to bring us, at the opening of
the twentieth century, to the threshold of the Legal Minimum
Wage for every branch of industry. Note again Mr. Asquith's
word " prescribes."

But the result in the United States may possibly be quite
otherwise. The great capitalist corporations of the United
States differ as widely from those of the United Kingdom as
do the laws and the trade-unions of the two countries. In
England, as I have said, the great capitalist is, and feels
himself to be, effectively under control. The trade-unions, if
inferior in strength on a fight to a finish, are in a position to
offer him stubborn resistance. The law is unquestionably his
master. And public opinion, not altogether on either side in
the conflict, passes with great rapidity, and with irresistible
force, into opposition to any serious attack on the current
Standard of Life. The American capitalist corporation is,
and feels itself to be, in a very different position. American
philanthropy has never been stirred by the sensational evils in
cotton and coal which brought about the English factory and
mining laws. Legal regulation of the conditions of labour,
Avhere it exists at all, has been, and continues to be, an alien
element in the American system, doubtfully constitutional
and hesitatingly enforced. The indispensable administrative
organization for any real enforcement of standard conditions
is nearly everywhere lacking. Nor does public opinion wish
it otherwise. Throughout the whole century, and right down
to our own day, it has been possible to retain the complacent
assur-ance, not too obviously contradicted by fact, that the,


native-born American, of Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic descent,
was always able to rise to a position of command, and to earn
a relatively good living. There is no evidence that the
concentration of industry in great capitalistic corporations, or
the vast accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small class,
has yet had any injurious effect on wages or on the other
conditions of employment. On the contrary, there is some
reason to think that so far, at any rate, as foremen and skilled
workers are concerned, the change in industrial organization
may be to their pecuniary advantage. In the comparatively
few sections of labour in which the workmen's organizations
have any real strength— these being usually the higher grades,
with some approach to a monopoly of skill or high technique,
— it may well suit the capitaHst corporations to buy off opposi-
tion by increased wages, which could not in any case make an
appreciable difference in the total cost of production. Public
opinion, moreover, keenly interested in the greatest possible
development of the national industry, and strongly prejudiced
against the interference of " labour unions," will continue to
operate against any effective strike. Thus, the rulers of the
great capitaUst corporations are, within the industrial sphere,
really able to do what they like with their own. When all
the employers in a single industry from California to Maine
combine into a single corporation, this leviathan is, indeed,
perhaps the most perfect example of freedom that the world
has ever seen. In the employment of labour, especially of a
low grade, such a giant corporation may impose very nearly
whatever conditions it chooses. Its power of " disciplining "
any recalcitrant hand, or even a whole community, is terribly
potent. It can shut down here and build up there, without
let or hindrance; it can maintain whatever brutalizing or
deteriorating conditions of labour that it thinks profitable to
itself; it can disregard with impunity all precautions against
disease or accident ; it can exact whatever degree of speed at
work it pleases; it can, in short, dispose of the lives of its
myriads of workers exactly as it does of those of its horses.

S. AND B. WEBB 105

The workers may " kick ; " there may be labour unions and
strikes ; but against such industrial omnipotence the weapons
of the wage-earners are as arrows against ironclads. This will
be all the more certainly the case because it will suit the
leviathian, as a matter of convenience, to come to terms with
the small minority of skilled and well-paid workmen, who
might have stiffened the rest. This is the condition of
monopolist autocracy into which every great industry in the
United States seems fated to pass, and to pass with great
rapidity. A few thousands of millionaire capitalist "kings,"
uniting the means of a few hundreds of thousands of passive
stockholders, and served by perhaps an equal number of well-
salaried managers, foremen, inventors, designers, chemists,
engineers, and skilled mechanics, will absolutely control an
army of ten or fifteen millions of practically property-less
wage-labourers, largely Slavonic, Latin, or Negro in race.

Now, we can hardly seriously predict, as a leading
American economist is said to have done, that this freedom
in autocracy will, within twenty-five years, produce an Emperor
of America. But it is not difficult to see that, unless the
United States learns a new lesson from the advent of the Trust,
it is preparing for itself a twentieth century such as Washington
would have shuddered to think of. From the purely *' busi-
ness " point of view, even when reinforced by all the scientific
economics of the college professor, there seems nothing to
stop the triumphant progress of this capitalist autocracy. The
great capitalists have no doubt thought this out, and are
confident of their future profits. But what American capitalists
always seem to undervalue is the influence exercised upon
their profits by wide political movements. How little the
Pierpont Morgans and Rockefellers of 1850 and 1856 thought
about the Abolitionists ! Yet the outcome of the Abolitionist
agitation upset a great many capitalist schemes. Even the
Bryan presidential campaign of 1896 cost the capitalists many
millions in diminished trade, slackened output, and diverted
energy. And so, the outsider ventures to predict, the advent


of the Trust will lead to quite unforeseen hindrances to
industrial development and quite unexpected deductions from
capitalist profits, arising from the kind of civilization which it
will produce and the political reactions which it will set up.
Let us, therefore, examine more closely what America has to
fear from the rule of the Trusts.

Notice, to begin with, that the advent of the Trust almost
necessarily implies an improvement in industrial organization,
measured, that is to say, by the diminution of the efforts and
sacrifices involved in production. Just as it was a gain to the
community, from this point of view, for the myriad small
masters to be merged in the relatively few capitahst employers,
so it is a further gain to merge these capitalist employers into
great Trusts or Corporations. The Standard Oil Company
and the United States Steel Corporation represent, in fact, an
improvement in industrial technique. So far as their organiza-
tions prevail, the production of commodities is carried on with
less labour, less friction, less waste, than it was under the
arrangements which they have superseded. There may be
other disadvantages, just as there were other disadvantages
when the hand-loom was superseded by the power-loom.
But we must not let the drawbacks obscure the element of
real progress. The rule of the great capitalist corporations
secures the organization of the work of the world in a way
which enables it to be done with a smaller expenditure of

But will the public be allowed to get the benefit of this
industrial improvement? Is it not to be expected that the
Trusts will put up prices against the consumer, and so levy
a tax upon the world compared with which the exactions of
Government sink into insignificance ? This danger seems to
me exaggerated and comparatively unimportant. It must
be remembered that anything like absolute monopoly of
production in the staple needs of the mass of the people is
unknown, and practically impossible. The main products of
the world are produced in too many different countries, under

S. AND B. WEBB 107

too many different industrial systems, standing at too varying
grades of civilization, for any absolute combination into a
single hand. A trust may, indeed, easily come to dominate
a single market. But even then, so great is the potential
expansion of demand for the articles of common consumption,
that it will probably pay the Trust better to reduce prices than
to raise them. As regards America, indeed, the remedy for
any oppressive raising of prices is to abolish the customs tariff,
and to call in the foreign producer. The monopolist Trust,
even in countries that freely open their ports to foreign pro-
ducts, can no doubt make large profits. But its profits will
represent chiefly the economies in production brought about
by its own formation. The consumer will not have to pay
more than the consumer of the same article in countries not
subject to the Trust, except by the amount of the freight, and
probably, as we shall see, not even by so much as that.
Hence we may expect the increasing dominance of the Trust
to make for the abolition of protective duties. It is, indeed,
not the consumer, as consumer, who need particularly fear the
Trusts, If, however, this conclusion proves erroneous, the
consumer, as citizen, has another remedy, to which we shall
refer at the end of this introduction.

The competent, " pushful," native-born American will get
on all right under this capitalist autocracy. He will, indeed,
have to give up the chance of becoming his own master, and,
practically, that of " making a pile." But what will be virtually
the civil service of industry, the great salaried hierarchy of the
Trusts, will offer a safer and, on the average, a better paid
career for industrial talent than the old chances of the market.
Every man of skill and energy, competence and "go," will be
wanted in the gigantic organization of the new industry.
Brains will be at a premium. From the skilled mechanic
right up to the highest engineering genius, from the competent
foreman up to the brightest railway organizer, from the merely
practised chemist up to the heaven-born inventor or designer,
— all will find, not merely employment, but scope for their


whole talent; not merely remuneration, but salaries such as
the world has seldom seen. And in serving their employers
they will be at least as directly serving the community as they
are at present.

It is when we come to the great mass of wage-earners — the
ten or fifteen millions of day-labourers and ordinary artisans
— that we see the really grave consequences of industrial
autocracy. These men, with their wives and families, must
necessarily constitute the great bulk of the population, the
"common lump of men." It is in their lives that the civiliza-
tion of a nation consists, and it is by their condition that it
will be judged. And, though the great ones never believe it,
it is upon the status, the culture, the upward progress of these
ordinary men that the prosperity of the nation, and even the
profits of the capitalists, ultimately depend. What is likely
to be the Standard of Life of the ordinary labourer or
artisan under the great industrial corporations of the United
States ?

Now one thing is definitely proved, both by economic
science and business experience. If the wages of common
labour are left to " supply and demand," and are not interfered
with by factory law or efi'ective trade-unionism, we shall
witness no improvement in the present conditions of life
of the Pennsylvania miner, the Chicago sweat-shop hand,
the day-labourer on the railroad, or the girl seamstresses
sewing for dear life in New York tenement garrets. On the
contrary, we shall see these conditions of life generalized over
the whole range of common labour, male or female. We
shall find wages everywhere forced down, for the ordinary,
common skilled worker, to their " natural level " — that is, to
the barest subsistence of the human animal from day to day.
With this state of things will necessarily go the corresponding
life, such as we see it already in the Pittsburg or Chicago slum.
It is, however, needless to amplify the picture. To what
awful depths of misery and demoralization, brutality and
degradation, humanity can, under " perfect freedom," descend,

S. AND B. WEBB 109

we are scarcely yet in a position to say. Is this to be the
contribution to economics, in the twentieth century, of the
country of Jefferson and Washington ?

Fortunately for the world, the United States is not likely
to make this experiment. The millions of common labourers,
however poor and degraded they may be, or may become, are
yet citizens and voters, — are, moreover, the inheritors, even
if of alien race, of glorious traditions of manhood and freedom.
That uncontrolled personal power which several centuries of
struggle have displaced from the throne, the castle, and the
altar, is not likely to be allowed to rule in the farm, the
factory, and the mine. As yet, the American citizen still
believes himself to be free, and sees not the industrial sub-
jection into which he is rapidly passing. But it is not to
be supposed that he will witness unmoved the successive
failures of trade-unions and strikes, the general reductions in
wages which will mark the first spell of bad trade, the manifold
dismissals and " shuttings down," the progressive degradation
of his class. He will take up every wild dream and every
mad panacea. He will be tricked and outvoted again and
again; but if so, the result will be a "class war" more
terrible than any the world has seen, and one in which, though
the ultimate victory will be with the common people, American
civiHzation may go back several generations.

Yet America ought to avoid this catastrophe. The ex-
periment has already been tried, and the remedy is known.
If the people of the United States will but do that most
difficult of all things — learn by the experience of other nations
— they may get out of the Trusts all the advantages which
these offer, without suffering the terrible calamity in which
they unwittingly threaten to overwhelm American civilization.
The remedy lies in what we, in our Industrial Democracy,
have ventured to call the "Policy of the National Minimum."
We must give up the idea of individual freedom of competi-
tion, which the combinations of capital have proved to be
illusory, and take up, instead, the higher freedom of collective


life. We must get back as a community what we have lost as

The Policy of the National Minimum translates itself into
four main branches of legislative and executive activity.
There will have to be a national minimum of wages. The
Trusts, or the other employers, will be under no legal obliga-
tion to employ any person whatsoever. But if they do employ
him or her, it will be a condition of every contract, not to
be waived or ignored, that its terms shall not be such as will
impair the efficiency of the citizen or diminish the vitality of
the race. To engage labour at wages insufficient to repair
the waste of tissue caused by the employment is demonstrably
to injure the community as a whole, and will be prosecuted as
such in the criminal courts. Those whose labour is not
worth the national minimum — the aged, the crippled, and the
blind ; the mentally or morally deficient ; the epileptic ; and
the chronically feckless and feeble-minded — will be maintained
by the community, as indeed they are now. But of all the
ways of maintaining those unable to earn a full livelihood, by
far the most costly and injurious is to allow them to compete
in the labour market, and thus to drag down by their infirmity
those who are whole. There are still people, of course, who
simply cannot imagine how a legal minimum wage could
possibly be enforced, just as there were, sixty years ago,
economists who demonstrated the impossibility of factory
laws. We have dealt fully with their difficulties and objec-
tions in our Industrial Democracy. As a matter of fact,
the legal minimum wage can be seen in force to-day in
Victoria and New Zealand, South Australia and New South

There will be a national minimum of leisure and recreation
secured by law to every citizen. It will be an implied con-
dition of every contract of employment, rigidly enforced by
law, that it shall leave untouched sixteen hours out of each
twenty-four for needful sleep, recreation, exercise of mind or
body, and the duties of citizenship and family life. Any

S. AND B. WEBB iii

attempt by man or woman to sell for wages any part of the
sixteen sacred hours will be blamed as virtual embezzle-
ment, since this part of the twenty-four hours' day must
be regarded as necessarily reserved for the purpose of
maintaining unimpaired the efficiency of the race. Any
employer purchasing them, or allowing them to be spent in
his mill or mine, will be prosecuted and punished, as if
he had incited to embezzlement or had received stolen

Online LibraryR. C. K. (Robert Charles Kirkwood) EnsorModern socialism, as set forth by socialists in their speeches, writings, and programmes; → online text (page 12 of 35)